Debate on GMOs: a dialogue of the deaf


After years of deadlock at the European level, 19 of the 28 European Union countries have requestedIn early October, they banned the cultivation of GMOs on - part of - their territory. The divide between the Member States is emblematic of the sterility of the debate on GMOs.

Toftentimes, this debate seems to boil down to a confrontation between two camps with diametrically opposed positions. On the one hand, the "anti-GMOs" denounce the technological fanaticism of the "pro-GMOs" who are in the hands of companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta or Pioneer. On the other hand, the pro-GMOs seem to see only advantages in their introduction, accusing the former of being obscurantist anti-science, and sometimes going so far as to compare them to climato-sceptics guided by primary instincts.

However, each side is far from proposing a perfectly substantiated argument, free of gaps. Are we really confronted with two genuine rational conceptions? Or are we rather dealing with dogmatic positions constituting two sides of the same coin, preventing the evolution and perhaps the very existence of the debate?


Genetically modified organisms, what are they?

The question of the agricultural model

If the pro-GMO positions boil down to preaching the universality of the technology, and the anti-GMO positions take their exact opposite tack (technology would be harmful in principle), can we still speak of a "debate"? If there is a debate, what interest could there be in it? More importantly, isn't this debate, moreover, toxic? Indeed, the antagonism of positions risks leading to the obscuring of a crucial question: what are the objectives to be achieved?

In other words, before asking the question of the legitimacy and appropriateness of the use of a technology, before deciding on its condemnation or praise, it would be necessary to determine what is expected of it and how it could be deployed. In the case of GMOs, therefore, one can only be "for" or "against" if one has first defined the desirable agricultural model. This definition must be made through a reflection which, whether some people like it or not, is not a scientific reflection (although it may be scientifically informed), but a political one.

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Defining the desirable agricultural model requires identifying the problems with the current model which, and this is probably the only point of consensus between the two camps, is no longer appropriate. For example, industrialization, overproduction, centralization of knowledge (and a loss of it at the farm level), rural exodus, externalization of environmental impacts, privatization of living things, erosion of biodiversity and genetic impoverishment are particularly worrying flaws in the current model. Before including any technology in our agriculture, we must first determine its capacity to provide solutions to these problems.

Lack of real counterweight

It must be said that, as things stand at present, the deployment of GMOs provides few answers to the problems of conventional agriculture. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of GMOs on the market offer only resistance to herbicides (the famous Round Up Ready) or insects (Bt GMOs). The former require a constant supply of pesticides, a solution that is difficult to defend given the impact of pesticides on the environment and health. The latter, while they may lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides in the short term, do not provide longer-term solutions. They do not, for example, solve the problem of the emergence of pesticide-resistant organisms. While some GMOs could be considered beneficial (such as Golden Rice, often cited), such applications are rare. And it is precisely the lack of public debate on the problems that GMOs should solve that maintains this rarity. Current discussions leave the field open to big business. In the absence of a counterbalance, only the interests of the latter are taken into account, and these are rarely equivalent to the collective interest.

In short, the debate needs to be broadened, taking into account all the problems facing conventional agriculture, thus going beyond the simple question of the use of GMOs. It is not just a question of yields, benefits and health. Even if the scientific community is tending towards a consensus on the absence of health risks, this alone does not provide a sufficient argument for their widespread deployment.



An anti-GMO demonstration in Rennes. Alter1fo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Environmental risks (in particular the loss of agricultural biodiversity) as well as the place of each actor in the production chain, or the autonomy and recognition of farmers are all questions that need to be asked. While it is recognized that farmers' autonomy and recognition is important, it is problematic that GMOs are the exclusive property of large agro-industrial groups. This does not mean, however, that such groups (or other important economic actors) are absolutely undesirable. As the cost of developing GMOs is very high, private sector research and development structures could prove useful. Nevertheless, the place given to the private sector should not prevent a process of decentralisation of agricultural knowledge and a real reappropriation of innovation by farmers.

Finally, problems relating to the independence of scientific investigations assessing the risks associated with innovations such as GMOs must also be resolved. Of particular concern is the lack of rigour and transparency of the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) assessment procedure for GMOs, which is largely based on non-public scientific data.

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By overcoming their own oppositions, pro and anti-GMOs could enrich each other, but also flush out those who are in reality only defending their own interests. It is the latter that are the real obstacle to an agriculture that serves above all the collective interest.

Brendan Coolsaet and Mathieu Guillermin,  Catholic University of Louvain

The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.

The Conversation

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